Reconsidering Rashida: Her Slut-Shaming is Bad, but not “Anti-Feminist”

Rashida Jones

Man, Rashida Jones really stepped in it, didn’t she? Following up on a series of ill-advised tweets (with the charming hashtag #stopactinglikewhores) aimed at “encouraging” female pop stars to cut it with hyper-sexual stuff already, Jones channeled her inner Sunday school teacher again last week in the pages of Glamour magazine. Her editorial was intended as an elaboration and clarification—“I didn’t say stop being whores, I said stop acting like it!”—but mostly it was a personal defense. She’s not, she assures us, a “prude.” In fact, she’s a feminist, which I guess in this formulation is the opposite of the moralizing scold the Twitter hordes accused her of being. But she didn’t soften her original arguments, which basically boil down to something about role models, plus Jones being grossed out by the sexualized images of pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna.

Unsurprisingly, the sentiment “I’m a feminist; stop acting like a bunch of hos” wasn’t warmly received by the wider feminist community, most (but not all) of which panned her for her seemingly un-feminist slut-shaming. I found the op-ed troubling, but less for the slut-shaming than the glaring hypocrisy. The fact that Jones directs her anger at female performers, rather than the male record executives who cook up the toxic stew those ladies swim in, is pretty appalling. However, much as I personally disagree with her, I think the critics claiming Jones’ stance is somehow anti-feminist are dead wrong. Loud, proud, and public moral scolding is a long tradition in the US women’s movement, one which continues to this day. But it’s a strategy we’re increasingly uncomfortable with, and it’s useful to examine the tensions that result when we deploy it.

An illustration from Glamour puts together sexy images of Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and others 

This illustration from Rashida Jones' Glamour article conflates the sexual expression of Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video. 

In telling everyone to, in essence, clean up their acts, Jones is joining a well-established branch of the feminist movement sociologists call social feminism. (No, not socialist.) “Social feminism” is a catch-all phrase some academics use to describe 19th century feminists who joined the movement with an agenda of moral reform. They were less interested in overtly political goals than in increasing women’s influence in areas of civic life considered part of the “feminine sphere.” Religious proselytizing, anti-prostitution crusades, the temperance movement—anything that could affect home life was a target for action.

Most first-wave feminist activists wanted political and social equality with men, so they, wisely, didn't spend much time talking about how women were fundamentally different. But social feminists were capital-E Essentialists who said we needed women in politics precisely because we were different: morally superior, gentler, more spiritual. If given the vote, women would keep hookers off the street and husbands out of the speakeasies. Their restraining influence was needed in public life, to tend to our nation’s hearth and home.

A girl holding a pennant that reads "anti-flirt club" in the 1920s

Washington D.C's "Anti-Flirt Club" formed in the 1920s and told women to combat street harassment with moralizing tips such as, "Don’t smile at flirtatious strangers—save them for people you know."

To contemporary feminists, that kind of thinking is infuriating and hopelessly backward. But as averse as we’ve grown to the language of old-school moralizing, social feminism’s influence didn’t end with the Victorians. In the 1970s, cultural feminists took up the mantle of women’s difference, claiming society should be organized around “female culture” because, see above: spirituality, gentleness, morality. Anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin was also a daughter of the social feminists. Even today, long after the movement has shed essentialism like a whalebone corset, those Victorian moralists still find their way into our rhetoric and strategies.

Remember Beyoncé’s Ms. cover? Lest we believe Rashida’s the only feminist taking offense at the sexed-up state of pop music today, let’s think back to May of this year, when a stock photo of Bey appeared as cover art to accompany a very thoughtful article by Janell Hobson. The cover itself is modest in the extreme—Beyoncé’s neckline is practically up to her chin­—but you’d never know it from reading the comments on the Ms. Facebook page. Not everyone in the thread was anti-Bey, but the majority were outraged that she’d be considered a feminist, and their critiques were based primarily on her sexuality and manner of dress. Commenters called her a “fur wearing stripper,” disparaged her for “parading around on stage in an outfit with nipples coloured on it,” and even compared her to Sarah Palin, which really is below the belt. Interestingly, many of the comments were couched in terms of “role models” and concern for children’s welfare, with one person darkly warning that girls who, like Bey, trade on their sexuality “usually find their virtue compromised.” I suppose that’s a point we could debate, but it’s also a page straight out of the social feminist playbook.

Then there was the case of Facebook vs. WAM!. This summer, FB was the target of an online pressure campaign for allowing gender hate speech and images of violence against women on its user pages. Anyone who’s ever posted a photo with a little too much sideboob knows that Facebook’s notions of “decency” can be stringent, yet they seemed fine with posting threats of rape or pictures of battered women. So WAM! and The Everyday Sexism Project led an action calling attention to violent and objectionable content. Using the hashtag #FBrape, activists called out violent images and threats, as well as sexual and objectifying photos. They encouraged their followers to contact Facebook’s advertisers with their complaints.

It was a very smart campaign. It got tons of press and achieved the result of getting Facebook to crack down on violent posts. But while the outcome was positive, I found the whole thing slightly discomfiting. Did Facebook need to clarify its muddled “community standards”? Yes. Do I want to see less sexist hate speech online? Of course. Do I think that publicly rebuking companies until they agree, as happened here, to be more morally responsible, is the best way to create lasting feminist change? Not really, but I recognize it as an effective and often necessary tactic.

Clearly, the WAM! anti-violence campaign is a more serious type of reform effort than calls, like Rashida Jones’, to police women’s clothing and sexuality. But it is also clearly in the same tradition of women activists “cleaning up” the messes of society in their role as moral caretakers. A potential problem with that kind of ethical enforcement is that unless it’s accompanied by more supportive educational efforts, you only drive the offenders elsewhere—you don’t actually change their attitudes. Creating safe spaces for women online is an end in itself, but it’s also an interim step in a larger project which should include strategies to influence people’s values, not just change their public behavior.

That’s a lesson the social feminists never fully learned, and it’s easy to see why. Despite its ideological limitations, social feminism gets shit done. In fact, it’s those very limitations—an emphasis on morality, decency, family—that provides social feminism a way into a culture that’s generally hostile to feminist thought. People who aren’t so keen to listen to ladies bitch about wage equity are probably fine with us talking about protecting kids from sexually objectifying imagery. Even as we distance ourselves from its ideology, we still use social feminism’s tactics in our activism. That’s not a problem in itself, but I do think we should be more aware of how we use those strategies, and when we do deploy them, we need to fully own it.

So next time a high-profile woman like Rashida Jones steps up and starts moralizing, interrogate her all you want, question her assumptions, but don’t tell her she’s “anti-feminist.” Moral reform is very much a part of feminism, past and present. The question is: what role should it play in our future?

Related Reading: "All Hail the Queen: What Do Our Perceptions of Beyonce's Feminism Say About Us?"

Camille Hayes is a domestic violence advocate, newspaper columnist, author and blogger, covering politics and women’s issues at her blog Lady Troubles


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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

The thing Rashida said that's

The thing Rashida said that's most interesting is that girls watching strong women act all sexy and exercising their sexual agency may not have the same level of agency. The least interesting was the "I said ACTING like whores!!"

Reform the cult default of female sexuality

Slut-shaming is overused and abused. While Rashida Jones comments were not expressed in the most appropriate manner, policing and attacking someone who is trying to point out a much larger systematic issue is not going to push forward our discussions of feminism and sexuality. Slut-shaming is a buzz word that is now thrown at any women who does not celebrate the sexual actions of another. Where do we draw the line?

If anything let's look at the deeper issues that create the divide in opinions of feminism and its relationship to sexuality; instead of dismissing what the opposing view has to say. I'm not celebrity but I do know that the context that female celebrities find themselves is in a patriarchal one that as a majority caters to the male gaze. So from that context, I don't want to demonize or put down females in that industry that use their sexuality to become more successful. Even with this opinion, I can see how it could be frustrating for Rashida to see her peers having to navigate their way to fame through this structure. Rashida sees her peers use of sexuality as a means of increasing their value to the viewers. Sex sells, and it's a commodity that is very valuable in the entertainment industry.

Is this an argument where you are either 'with us' or 'against us'? I know that as feminists we are above this and have the capability of having a discussion that is constructive and enlightening rather than dismissive and a holier than thou contest.

What I see missing from this discussion is the instersectionality of race and age in regard to female sexuality. As a whole, through the medias lens, female sexuality is often referring to skinny young white female sexuality. Not to say that this all that is spouted from the medias lens. However, this tends to be the default. If we want to be inclusive and allow people of all body types, races, and ages, to openly be proud of their sexuality, a larger discussion can be had on how we can challenge the 'norm'. Let's really celebrate our sexuality as whole and not only as a minority who fit the mold or come close to fitting the mold.

Sexuality is complex and ever changing. Lets not get caught up in he said she said blah blah blah. What are the important societal/systematic issues at hand that pit us against one another in debate and that allows people to profit off of the male gaze. We are bigger than this petty arguing. To dismantle this arbitrary system lets not demonize one another and get to the root of this problem.

<3

postmodgirls

Camille, Beautiful assessment

Camille,
Beautiful assessment of this topic. I love where you went with it. This, to me, is my passion as a feminist - include strategies to influence people’s values, not just change their public behavior. You identified and articulated exactly what I feel feminist activism is.
I met you last year, and I'm so delighted to know ya :)

Morality

quote "So next time a high-profile woman like Rashida Jones steps up and starts moralizing, interrogate her all you want, question her assumptions, but don’t tell her she’s “anti-feminist.” Moral reform is very much a part of feminism, past and present. The question is: what role should it play in our future?"

I'm not certain there's a unified agreement anymore on morality. So many immoral acts are now becoming virtuous. I asked a teenager what he thought feminism was the other day, he giggled and said "shoving your Vag in someone's face like this"! And he went on to grab his crotch ... honestly, I'm over modern feminism. I remain embarrassed by what I see in media. I think if you're talking about feminists morals, we really need to come to some agreement on what that is anymore. Hopeless. Can anyone clearly state what feminists morals are today? TY! PS And yes, I personally would rather read about wage inequality than celebrities, but ... again, feminism seems to fall into the quasi-shock value category of discussion anymore. *bored*

Shifting the blame

I think the part of your article that really got it right (and showed that Rashida's ire might be misplaced) is when you mentioned that many of the women in pop culture who are selling hypersexual imagery are primarily doing so at the dictation of male executives who mandate it.

Listen, it's hard to know "where the buck stops" in the quagmire of pop culture, but from my perception as a kid, it seemed like the stuff Madonna was doing was coming from HER-- that SHE was interested in pushing the boundaries, SHE wanted to put her sexuality on full display in her music and public image, and the male "powers that be" basically stayed out of her way because she was making them a LOT of money. On the other hand, you had the Bangles, who were constantly being pressured to bring on the sexy to sell records (especially Suzanna Hoffs), which contributed heavily to their eventual collapse. I don't claim to know where someone like Rihanna sits on that sliding scale; admittedly I don't read enough to claim to have a window into the minds of most pop stars.

The thing is, there is no litmus test for whether a celebrity's public display of sexuality is their own. I find Miley Cyrus to be pretty gross, but I have no idea whether she was calling her own shots when she decided to twerk with Robin Thicke or pose in sheer outfits on magazine covers. Beyonce seems to be at the point in her career where she gets to be heavily involved in the decision making (like Madonna), but that still doesn't mean she isn't pressured to cater to the male gaze. Most of the time, there's just no way for us to know the minutiae, which often makes it difficult as feminists to determine what should be embraced as a display of an artist's sexuality (lest we be accused of slut-shaming), and what should be condemned as cold, calculated objectification for the sake of the male gaze.

It's not a simple world we live in, is it? And that's why I think that Rashida's intentions were good, even if she targeted the symptom rather than the disease. She didn't realize she was potentially offending some women who might be more comfortable with the kind of content she was lumping into one category, which is why generalizing is so dangerous, and it's best to consider these things one case at a time.

nothing wrong with experiencing shame

when it is an appropriate feeling in light of one's ignorant/ self-serving / denigrating / socially destructive actions.

Indeed, those amongst us who lie so well do so because they do not experience shame / they have no inner compass / they do not care what effect their actions have on others / they are in this age of narcissists / narcissists!

by the way, if you look like a tramp / (old fashioned term) (male or female) - it is not "sexy cool" - it is cheap / vulgar/ tawdry /

really a waste of one's "talent" if indeed one has any -

jeez louise. folks, get real.

If it weren't for the "entertainment" industry / male-dominated / sexist / whorish to the extreme /

girls like Miley and Rihanna would be called sluts to their face / and a slut, sorry, does not forward feminism in any way, shape, or fashion. (no pun intended)

I'm with you Anon!

I'm in complete agreement with you. But a question I do have is this: aren't consumers of pop culture, mostly female anymore? Are we truly being factual when we assume this industry is pushing slutty behavior simply because of the old supply and demand? I am learning more that women hold the purse strings, again we are not living in the 70s ... frustrating that we are still holding on to so many outdated ideas, and I can only blame this on the aging, hermit-like professors who aren't bothering to progress. I'm open to being wrong, that's how I learn. But I swear I keep reading that women are the largest consumers now. Anecdotal, but I don't know a single guy in my circle of friends, who have purchased a Miley Cyrus CD. Ok, thank you!